In case it wasn’t clear from earlier posts, our position on today’s bailout bill can be summarized as follows: the bailout is neither a complete nor a perfect solution, but it is better than the original proposal of ten days ago, and it is a valuable first step toward restoring confidence in the markets. This morning when the Dow fell 200 points shortly after opening, there were news stories speculating that the markets were not happy with the bailout plan; well, we saw this afternoon what the markets really thought about the bailout.
So if the professional investors who manage most of our money wanted the bailout, what happened? The free-market libertarians were opposed to the bill on supposedly fundamental grounds, but they were not enough to vote it down. The bill failed because enough representatives did not want to go home to their reelection campaigns having voted for a widely unpopular bailout bill. And why is it unpopular? Because no one took the time to educate the public on what the crisis means, how the bailout would operate, what the potential costs of inaction would be, what is happening to the money, and so on. These are complicated issues, but in the absence of explanation the public (based on the “man on the street” interviews” I heard on the radio today) focused on a few simplistic ideas: that this is a bailout for rich Wall Street bankers; that the $700 billion (at least) is a complete loss for the taxpayer; that the current administration cannot be trusted; and so on.
Perhaps there was not time in the last ten days for this type of education. But this only points out the importance of planning ahead. By repeating that the economy was “fundamentally sound” until suddenly discovering that it wasn’t, Bush, Paulson, and Bernanke lost the opportunity to prepare the ground for major government intervention in the economy. This bill will almost certainly be renegotiated and brought to another vote. But the underlying lesson is that intervention on the scale we are talking about requires political legitimacy, and that legitimacy requires the willingness to explain to the public just what is going on and why it matters to them.